Written by award-winning Hmong-Australian writer Michele Lee and directed by Artistic Director Matthew Xia, Rice tells the story of two women who meet in an office building while working for Golden Fields, Australia’s leading rice producer.
Nisha (Anya Jaya-Murphy) holds one of the executive positions in the company, and is determined to become the first Indian CEOs in Australia. Yvette (Angela Yeoh), on the other hand, is an older Chinese immigrant who works late evenings as a cleaner. Unlike the previous workers employed by Golden Fields to clean offices, Yvette has the nerve to comment on the mess Nisha leaves on her desk every night, initiating conversations that lead to the two women growing closer to each other.
Rice is a minimalistic play, consisting of an uncomplicated set design and only two actors. The unchanging set is an office desk, primarily serving as Nisha’s place of work, accompanied by a trolley full of cleaning supplies in the background. The positioning of the trolley is a reminder for Nisha that although she’s the only one to work in the room during the day, the space belongs to Yvette as well.
The first few scenes set a premise for a simple story of two women coming from different ethnic and social backgrounds who slowly begin to form a friendship. While this is the concept Rice is built around, the story does not stop there. It is significantly more ambitious in scope, trying to simultaneously develop plot lines from both women’s lives. In the following scenes, we are introduced to a multitude of characters, most of whom appear for merely a few lines of dialogue and leave without making a mark.
Due to the limitations of having only two actors, the side characters are played by either one of the two lead actresses, leading to a never-ending confusion as more characters are introduced.
It is an interesting and brave artistic decision to let an Indian actress play characters from the Chinese character’s family, and vice versa, for a Chinese actress to play Indian characters. Both leads worked with an accent coach to ensure that the pronunciation is on point, offering an accurate and respectful portrayal of different nationalities and ethnicities. However, this is the only positive thing that could be said about the introduction of so many background characters, as most of them serve no real purpose in the story.
There is an entire sequence of Nisha’s journey to India, where she meets with various regions’ government officials while working on her most ambitious project to date. This segment of the story, including not only the professional responsibilities being carried out by Nisha but also building some interpersonal dynamics within the company, is a prime example of how Rice fails to acknowledge that its ambitions are larger than its capabilities.
Rice tries to undertake many topics, from identity, professional success, immigration and assimilation in another country, to friendship, relationships, parenthood, and many more. With such an ambitious premise and a vast array of themes to develop, 95 minutes and two actors on stage is simply, and by far, not enough.
There’s no doubt that there is potential for excellency within this story, and its Australian Writers’ Guild Award for Best Original Stage Play can be understood. However, it is evident that Michele Lee and Matthew Xia did not recognise this potential in an appropriate way, and were unable to capture in on stage. Their Rice is a severely undercooked mess, and fails to follow any path it opens.